Devastating Mourne Mountains fire believed to have been started deliberately
THE devastating blaze in the Mourne Mountains is believed to have been started deliberately, the NI Fire and Rescue Service said last night.
Investigations are continuing to establish the cause of the extensive gorse fire on Northern Ireland's highest mountain Slieve Donard.
But one senior fire officer yesterday described how he was "angry" the fire may have been started deliberately.
Area Commander Mark Smyth said: "I am extremely disappointed in whoever thinks this is fun or if they think this is a great opportunity to manage land".
He pleaded for "people to stop lighting fires - especially over the next weeks and months".
"A big issue for me is we have firefighters down the mountains when we really need them in towns where there might be some extremely serious life risk fires or there might be RTCs (road traffic collisions)," he told the BBC.
More than 100 firefighters were involved in the operation, which took three days to bring under control and led to extensive damage to wildlife and the environment.
Agriculture minister Edwin Poots yesterday said he would consider legislation which would impose major penalties on anyone found guilty of starting such fires.
"If we are required to upgrade our legislation then that's something I will not be shy in bringing forward," he said.
He added: "We need to think about all measures that can be put in place to deter people from starting such fires".
The DUP minister told the Assembly it would take decades for plant and animal life to recover from the damage caused. The scale of the devastation extends to more than 3.5 km, which he described as "shockingly sad".
"Whoever lit this fire - whether it was accidental or whether it was reckless - should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, because this involved some element of human behaviour," he said.
In what was described as "undoubtedly one of the most challenging gorse fires" ever dealt with, crews were at the scene since Friday.
It was declared a 'major incident' on Saturday when flames spread from Bloody Bridge, across Thomas Mountain and the base of Slieve Donard, as well up Northern Ireland's highest peak, to less accessible ground.
At its peak, more than 100 firefighters were involved with 12 appliances from stations across the north as well as numerous support vehicles mobilised to the scene.
Coastguard Helicopters were deployed to achieve an aerial view of the fire, inform tactical firefighting decisions and transport firefighters to remote locations to tackle the fire.
The 'major incident' status was de-escalated on Sunday with extensive firefighting operations completed shortly before 5pm.
In a statement last night, the NIFRS said the blaze "is believed to have been started deliberately".
Chief fire and rescue officer Michael Graham said "calling an incident like this challenging doesn’t do justice to the effort our firefighters have put in over this weekend".
"The pictures we’ve seen on social media have shown us how hard they worked in intense conditions to extinguish this huge fire and prevent it spreading to threaten human life or property," he said.
"While I am proud of the work our people did, we are all saddened by the destruction this fire has caused to our natural environment."
He said that firefighters had been involved in responding to 400 other incidents while the Mourne Mountains fire was burning.
"Thanks to their hard work we have continued to protect our community, while dealing with a major incident without missing a beat," he said.
Mr Graham thanked the fire service for their efforts in fighting the blaze, adding that it was a "truly multi-agency incident".
"I speak for every single firefighter and every single NIFRS employee when I say that we have been blown away by the outpouring of support we have seen," he said.
The National Trust said it was "devastated to see the impact the fire has had on the fragile habitat of upper Slieve Donard".
"This Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has been completely destroyed and will take years to recover," it said.
"The heather landscape, which is a designated Special Area of Conservation, once alive with flora, fauna and diverse wildlife is now charred earth and ash."
Martin Carey of the Mourne Heritage Trust said a NI-wide strategy was required to minimise the risk of future damage from similar blazes. While a Mourne wildfire group is in place, he said extra resources were needed.
"The Environment Agency is currently working on a strategy, we need that accelerated and then behind that we need the continuity of resource coming in because one of the big challenges has been, while we are very grateful for the resource that has been provided, it's piecemeal- it's odd year to year end of year fundings, surplus funds etc," he told the BBC.
"We need a continuity of investment that's commensurate with the importance and vulnerability of this landscape."